Skip to main content

Activist Wang Tiancheng’s Journey From Beijing to Penn Law

June 06, 2012

In 1989 Wang Tiancheng LLM’12 was embarking on what he imagined would be a traditional academic career. He was completing a law degree and beginning to lecture at Peking University, China’s premiere law school, when the Tiananmen Square protests erupted.

In 1989 Wang Tiancheng LLM’12 was embarking on what he imagined would be a traditional academic career. He was completing a law degree and beginning to lecture at Peking University, China’s premiere law school, when the Tiananmen Square protests erupted.

“To tell you the truth, I was not deeply involved in the protests,” he recalled recently at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he earned his LLM degree in May. “At the time, my ideas were different. My idea was that I would use my pen, rather than my legs, to work for democracy.”

But history intervened. And as it turns out, over the past two decades Wang has used both.

While at Penn Law, Wang completed a book manuscript that he began writing after going into political exile in the United States in January 2008. His arrival in this country followed years of harassment by Chinese government authorities for his activism on behalf of democratic reform - political dissidence for which he received a five-year prison term in the 1990s.

Wang’s new book, The Grand Transition: A Research Framework for the Strategy to Democratize China, published this month in Hong Kong, is scholarship with a political purpose. Examining more than 30 cases of democratic transition throughout the world, it lays out Wang’s vision of how a Chinese constitutional republic can be brought about.

Wang hopes that the book will influence pro-democracy circles in China, convincing them that the best strategy to achieve democracy is to initiate quick and significant reforms at the national level, rather than carrying out minor, piecemeal reforms.

“The assumption that slow, piecemeal reform would guarantee a less risky transition is problematic,” Wang said during an interview in the Law School library. He predicted that if free elections were held at the provincial level before free national elections, China would very likely fall apart, like the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

Support on the part of some reformers for what he terms “gradualism” is misguided, he asserted. It is based on inadequate understanding of how democratic transitions work, a knowledge gap that he hopes his book will fill. The fear that sweeping change will result in social chaos is also misguided, he said, because it underestimates the common sense and resilience of the Chinese people.

 “I believe the Chinese people have the patience to tolerate hardships and will be willing to give the expected fledgling democracy time to deal with various problems. They are reasonable. I don’t think they are so naïve and idealistic as to expect that all problems will be solved overnight once the authoritarian regime is ended. When the transition to democracy is initiated, new factors in favor of stability will appear,” he said.

Wang, 50, was born in the mid-1960s, the last decade of Mao’s dictatorship. He entered university in the 1980s at a time when the economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping after Mao’s death in 1970 were being followed by a period of legal reform.

 “In the late 1970s, the leadership thought law was important and that they should staff the courts again,” he said. One result was that his father, who was an accountant, was appointed a judge, after “spending a couple of months learning law.”

But it was the larger social concern with the rule of law, not his father’s career change, which led Wang in 1986 to Peking University, where he majored in constitutional and administrative law and did so well that when he graduated in 1989 he was appointed to the faculty as a lecturer.

The Tiananmen protests in the spring of that year were largely student-led. They lasted for seven weeks, evolving into a mass movement for political reform that drew a vicious government response. When the government sent in the army to open fire on the protestors, thousands were killed and thousands more injured.

“When the massacre happened, I was very angry,” Wang said. “It was a shock that the government would fire at the demonstrators and protesters.”

The crackdown and subsequent political repression by the government was a turning point for Wang. “Nobody dared to speak out after the massacre,” he said. “I felt very pained, very suppressed. After many discussions with my friends, we came to the conclusion that someone should stand up.  So I changed my idea and chose a career as a political dissident. I was involved in creating a pro-democracy opposition party.”

In 1992, Wang was sentenced to five years in prison for his involvement with the pro-democracy movement. He describes the conditions in prison simply as “awful, terrible.” When he was released in 1997, Peking University fired him and no other academic institutions would hire him.

For the next 10 years, Wang supported himself in a variety of jobs, while continuing to research and write, using a variety of pseudonyms. Breaching the “Great Firewall” that censored the Internet, he managed to publish his pro-democracy scholarship online, calling, among other things, for Chinese courts to be given the power of judicial review.

Wang’s career in China as a dissident scholar ended when he became embroiled in an unusual, high-profile dispute involving plagiarism of his work. In 2005, two of his books, On Republicanism and Further Thoughts on Republicanism, he asserts were plagiarized by a prominent pro-government scholar.

Wang drew attention to the selective appropriation and misuse of his work, first writing about it online and eventually suing in court, claiming his intellectual property rights had been violated. The case drew international media attention, as well as the attention of government officials.

Once again in the cross-hairs and threatened with another prison term, Wang finally decided to come to the United States. With the support of the Scholar Rescue Fund, he arrived in New York in January 2008 with his wife and son.

Wang worked on The Grand Transition at Columbia, Northwestern and NYU, before applying to Penn Law as an LLM in 2011.

“A long time ago when I was a law school student in China, I had a dream” he said. “I hoped that someday I would have a chance to receive legal training in a country with democracy and the rule of law like the United States.”

His studies at Penn Law, he said, have grounded his appreciation of democracy. “Being here, it’s not just a concept.  You have a better understanding of how to build up the institutions [of democracy], the courts, what kinds of expectations are reasonable, the strengths and shortcomings. It helps you think in a more productive way.”

“I was very enthusiastic about Wang’s application to Penn Law,” said Amy Gadsden, Associate Dean for International Affairs and a longtime advocate for legal and human rights reform in China.  “It is an honor to be in the presence of someone who has dedicated his life, at great personal sacrifice, to pushing for democratic change in the PRC.  When I talk to Tiancheng, I am reminded of the great value that law schools can play in fostering debate about the relationship between state and society.”

For the foreseeable future, Wang’s continued scholarship will take place in the U.S. Shortly after arriving in New York, he said, he was invited to dinner by agents of the Chinese security apparatus, who told him not to return to China.

His immediate plans are to return to New York, where he hopes, among other activities, to found a pro-democracy journal. But he also believes that the day is not far distant when he will be able to return to a democratic China.

“Civil society is growing,” he said. “And the mentality of the people has changed. Nobody trusts the ideology of the Communist Party.”

And the hopeful lesson he takes away from his study of democratic transitions is this: “Before a dictatorship collapses, people think it will last forever. But very often change comes overnight. We will have a chance in the near future to make a new constitution for China. This day will come. It will not take long.”